British M.P.s have voted to ask the European Union to delay Brexit, with just two weeks to go until the U.K. is scheduled to leave the bloc.
The U.K. is barreling towards the March 29 Brexit deadline with no approved E.U. withdrawal agreement and a prime minister who appears to have lost control over her bickering cabinet.
On Thursday, M.P.s voted to ask E.U. leaders to simply push Brexit back in a bid to head off a chaotic end to their 46-year partnership. The vote also allowed for May’s twice-rejected deal to return to parliament again next week. But a bumpy “no deal” exit on Mar. 29 will still happen if May’s strategy is voted down again and the E.U. 27 fail to approve an extension.
E.U. leaders have said they would consider any request from London. But they also want to know how long the extension would be—and what it would be used for—before they meet in Brussels next week.
Approval would then see her ask for the delay until June 30 so that the treaty can be ratified. But she has warned that if her deal is rejected, it could see Brexit postponed for much longer.
A bigger delay would also see Britain take part in European Parliament elections in May—bizarrely re-immersing the country in E.U. politics after Brexit was originally meant to have gone into effect.
E.U. Council chief Donald Tusk said on Thursday that the bloc could approve a long postponement “if the U.K. finds it necessary to rethink its Brexit strategy and build consensus around it.” He reflected Brussels’ long-standing position that a closer relationship is possible if May abandons her opposition to staying in the E.U. customs union.
May’s deal has been blocked chiefly by disagreement over the so-called Irish “backstop”—a measure to keep trade flowing and avoid friction at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. A sense of chaos has filled the House of Commons this week as lawmakers held a series of votes on ideas about what they could do next.
M.P.s have twice rejected the deal struck by Prime Minister Theresa May with the other 27 E.U. nations—in January and on Tuesday. They voted on Wednesday not to leave without an agreement but still lacked a clear roadmap on the way forward three years after Brexit was launched in a bitterly divisive referendum.
Lawmakers also rejected a call to use that time to hold a second Brexit referendum—a blow to the hopes of a large number of Britons who still dream of keeping their European identities.
Anxious businesses are pleading for action and U.S. President Donald Trump waded in to pronounce himself “surprised to see how badly it has all gone.”
“Parliament’s rejection of no deal and desire for an extension shows there is still some common sense in Westminster,” the influential CBI business lobby tweeted after the vote. “But without a radically new approach, business fears this is simply a stay of execution.”